TRAINING AND MANAGEMENT OF TRANSLATORS AND INTERPRETERS
KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE NITI CONGRESS UNIVERSITY OF LAGOS, AKOKA, LAGOS ON THURSDAY, 15TH NOVEMBER, 2007
PROFESSOR TUNDONU AMOSU DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES LAGOS STATE UNIVERSITY OJO
The Vice-Chancellor, University of Lagos, The President, Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters, Seasoned translators and interpreters, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen
I am indeed honoured and delighted to be vested with the responsibility of delivering the keynote address at this congress which has as its theme: Professionalism, trainingand language studies in the new millennium”.The theme is very much in tune with this century which will definitely be driven by Information and Communication Technology (ICT).It is obvious that anyone who is not ICT compliant today is, at best, an ignorant onlooker and not even an informed spectator, as we have in our football stadia all over the world. Today’s spectators or tifosi as the Italians call them, know all the players and are as educated on the game as the referee.An onlooker is what we have especially when the uninitiated finds himself at cricket match.
Tribute to Taiwo
But first, may I pay appropriate tribute to one of the diminishing tribe of seasoned interpreters who left us not too long ago:Taiwo DAVID.She was a quiet and diligent worker with an arresting sense of humour whose professionalism was never in doubt.Taiwo David was a methodical conference interpreter who taught me how to increase my vocabulary through a systematic glossary-building exercise immediately after each conference.In this way, it was possible to build a strong arsenal which always turned out to be useful, particularly if one was required to service an international conference, even at relatively short notice.Her departure brings to mind the disturbing fact that we may have overlooked the need to activate a back-up plan, for the replacement of our seasoned professionals who are no longer as young as they were when they began their careers some thirty years ago.
This is why I have chosen to address frontally, the issue of training and management of translators and interpreters, for the survival of Nigerians in the international conference interpretation and translation circuit.The Nigerians who have, for so long, occupied the booths are not getting younger and my fear is that our English-speaking booths may soon be filled by English speakers whose basic education was not carried out in English, but in French.The matter is serious enough and should engage our attention because, all over the world, the older generations invariably quit the scene and leave the business to younger but equally capable hands.That should be our mandate today, particularly in a global setting where information is readily accessed provided one knows what to do with ICT.
Breeding Translators and Interpreters
Translators and Interpreters seem to belong to a rare breed of persons who have emerged from the generality of graduates of French.In principle, every graduate of foreign languages should be capable of sustaining meaningful conversation and use ideas acquired through the new language.Some exceptional students even come very close to near–native speaker quality because they imbibe completely the linguistic mannerisms and culture of the foreign language.For example, the sustained learning of Italian actually activates a kind of unusual love for lassagna, that first cousin of spaghetti with all the cheese on it and also grappa, which is the Italian response to vodka.In my days as a student in Senegal, French singers Joe Dassin and Daniel Balavoine easily eclipsed all my love for James Brown and the Rolling Stones.The same remains true when one wishes to embrace the culture of a foreign language, sometimes at the expense of one’s native culture.
For language teachers, the concept of total immersion means that, for a given period, the learner of a foreign language is forced to experience, as part of the full acquisition process, all the usual and even unusual situations capable of leading the student to use the required vocabulary.This is the concept of the Year Abroad which, in Nigeria of the Sixties to the early eighties, was the most attractive aspect of the degree course in French.I must confess that I am indeed the end-product of years of intensive acculturation, which for French studies meant a complete knowledge of the grammar of Maurice Grévisse, the literary series by Messrs Lagarde and Michard, plus a vast collection of choice newspapers ranging from Le Figaro or Le Canard Enchaîné to Le Monde, and the ‘ordained’ authors which, included Madame de Sevigné, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Guy de Manpassant, Honoré de Balzac and Anatole France and many more.Thus, by the time we graduated, we could readily discuss French politics and the Francophone world without feeling in any way inferior to our French-speaking mates.Many became so soaked in French language and culture that it took ‘the years of the locust’ to wean them from vin rouge and baguette.Little wonder then that they became good material for the international training schools and went on to become the translators and interpreters of whom we are all so proud today.
In the school for translation and interpretation, the basic knowledge of the graduate student is honed and sharpened by teachers who actually understand the imperatives of intelligent code-switching.On account of the economic situation known to all, let us refrain from citing the examples of schools of translation and interpretation in the United Kingdom, France or Canada because, in spite of their ascertained efficiency, the fees are now quite intimidating, even for affluent Nigerians.Suffice it to say that the system which produced the current set of seasoned, experienced translators and interpreters, has become more or less out of reach for reasons which I said, are clear to all of us.More disturbing, however, is the fact that, even those fortunate graduates of the Nigerian system, whose sponsors are rich enough, have not been known to succeed as much as their predecessor.In other words, we are no longer producing enough quality material, capable of doing what was common to good Nigerian graduates of about thirty years ago.Whereas, in 1970 the transition to a postgraduate programme in Europe was automatic for the Nigerian graduate, the current situation is best illustrated by the new requirements for graduate studies in Europe, particularly the language proficiency test which has become a veritable barrier.
Constraints and the way out
We may, of course, blame the general collapse of the educational system which now produces graduates who cannot boast of the body of knowledge so fundamental in the past.It is now possible to see graduates of French who cannot recall any title by Balzac, Stendhal or Victor Hugo.One is distressed to report that many cannot watch French television or listen to Radio France Internationale with effective comprehension.Sadly enough, the basic teaching materials are not there: language laboratories are hardly known to be in existence and functioning too, and the situation is now so bad that students went to obtain their degrees by simply photocopying relevant pages of antiquated books.The facilities are certainly not big enough for the new plethoric classes of 90 or 120 essentially JAMB rejects, dumped on French programmes “for want of something to do!”We cannot pretend that all is well because, manifestly, the number of Nigerian graduates today who can stand up to thirty minutes of French conversation without any appreciable degree of stress has decreased phenomenally.The new global realities, from which our graduates are systematically excluded, particularly in a country where NEPA (or PHCN) provokes computer illiteracy, now place a heavy burden on these young graduates.The conclusion is daunting and would sink anyone but the very courageous.All these issues paint a dismal picture of what one can call the transition field.The world of translation and interpretation is now fiercely competitive and conference organizers expect translators and interpreters to hit the ground running.But how can this be when training is not often available to fresh graduates?
Of course, one accepts that translation studies have continued to exist in Nigeria with some degree of success.But the distinction must be made here that there is no identifiable school of interpretation.In fact, it is more likely that, for most, the first real contact with the booth is on conference day!That leaves us with schools or departments of translation such as we have at Ibadan, Lagos, Uturu (ABSU), Port Harcourt, Nsukka, to mention the ones generally accepted in the field.There is abundant evidence to show that the Masters degree in translation is oftentimes at variance with the actual knowledge acquired by the students.From personal experience, practical exercises at interviews for appointment throw up startling revelations such as the fact that many budding translators are incapable of using a computer or surfing the net.Besides, all thetheories of translation seem to collapse when faced with the reality of work under conference conditions, when some thirty pages need to be turned into coherent documents in another language overnight.
Unfortunately, the opportunities available to freshly-qualified translators are so limited that there is hardly a second chance for a bungling first performance.It would seem that conference organizers only want tested translators and cannot be moved to accept green horns of unverified quality and alacrity.These are issues which we must address at this meeting.
On the training of Interpreters
You may have noticed that I have not dwelt on the training of interpreters.The sad truth, as we say in French, is that ‘ça saute aux yeux!’It is obvious to all of us that, unlike those fortunate to have been trained abroad many years ago, no conference interpreter can claim to have been trained at home.The cost of training is indeed prohibitive and any attempt to start such a school here would, to my mind, be quite unrealistic.Who would teach and, may one add, for how much?Perhaps we can throw the challenge here to the seasoned conference interpreters who would agree that the future years of activity may not be quite up to the glorious years of servicing distinguished delegates from all over the continent.But how can our young graduates become interpreters if no one gives them a chance?
For me, it was a pleasure interpreting an Obasanjo whose studied pace would give one enough room to “consult” colleagues.At the extreme end of the take was the blistering experience of doing an opening address delivered by “the goggled one”Can we hope to raise a new team which would rediscover the natural booth composure found in Ekundayo Simpson, Kenny David or Akin de Medeiros, such as invariably leaves delegates wondering if machines are actually programmed to engineer immediate understanding and equivalent sensations whereas they are exclusively dependent on head phones?Let me recall that this core group of interpreters, Messrs Simpson et al, is well known to conference organizers.But who will give a chance to fresh hands?Just what is the problem which renders it almost impossible to raise fresh heads in this enterprise?
At the risk of sounding trite, the problem has its roots which now run very deep.As a lecturer in the university system, it is now safe to affirm that English is no longer our A language because, more and more entrants into French studies cannot show proof that English is their quasi-mother tougue or language of intellectual communication.In its place, we now battle with the structure of pidgin, which is definitely one of the new dominant Englishes.It is clear that this deficiency leads to another one in the B language, which for us is French.Indeed, no one refers to the C language in spite of what is indicated in the degree programme of our Universities.
Having identified the problems of training, we must, of necessity, seek durable, realistic and affordable solutions.In vain would one wave the comfortable reward package and travel opportunities for translators and interpreters. We all know that translators and interpreters travel a lot.However, what is not provided can never be patronized, let alone rewarded.We now have an alarming situation because we need to seek fresh ways of injecting new blood into the whole system.From my experience as external examiner to the Masters degree in translation programmes of the University of Lagos and Abia State University, Uturu, the theoretical framework and the rest of the course work are most challenging and should, ordinarily, produce quality translators who would, fresh from the mill, give a good account of themselves in translating conference documents.
Perhaps on account of material problems, including the dearth of functional language laboratories, there is little room for life-changing improvements which ensure that fresh products face the challenges of professional life with absolute confidence.It is a fact that most graduates are hardly able to summarize news originally in French, for an English-speaking audience.We can then wonder how they can hope to square up to simultaneous or consecutive interpretation without slipping into some “Icheukwu” performance.Some years ago, at a technical session on notetaking handled by the excellent Olga Simpson, the first try was most discouraging.Now, there are many more alarming stories.
Training must therefore be allowed to recover some proper dimensions in Nigeria or, perhaps outside.The cost, we know, is very high but we must engage in training if our seats are not to be taken by others.Our French-speaking colleagues are making giant strides in professional training and gradually occupying even the English booth.Naturally, “on ne donne rien, pour rien” and somehow we must invest in ourselves and in our future.The sad fact is that French, as a university degree programme, has suddenly become a haven for dead enders, who have no love for the course, and cannot be relied upon to read just for knowledge and pleasure.
At the last meeting of the University French Teachers’ Association of Nigeria (UFTAN), held from 4th to 8th November, 2007 at the University of Benin, Benin City, one of the decisions was the need to revamp our syllabus in order to be in harmony with current trends.At the global level which is the natural arena of translators and interpreters, there is little room for error.
The final solution
The Chairman, President of NITI, distinguished colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The training aspect of translators and interpreters must find a lasting solution in the light of our current economic situation.Sadly enough, the same economic situation has virtually destroyed efforts to manage our professionals and ensure that they work in generally acceptable conditions.The professional rates are regularly sabotaged as a result of ignorance on one hand, and on the other, what one must call ‘profiteering’ by those who require our services.There is a considerable amount of unethical and thoroughly unprofessional practices which have made Nigeria a free space for all kinds of interlopers who have even been known to engage in character assassination, in the name of jostling for contracts.Invariably, conference organizers who seek the cheap way, “(cheap thing, no good, good thing no cheap!” say some people from across the Niger) end up with all types of distressing performances but that is hardly any reason to lament.Our focus should be on the passage of the NATI bill so that some form of regulation can be introduced.Failure to do so would be a definite commitment to chaos with its attendant consequences.
We must urge our colleagues to ensure that more respect is given to this profession.As strange as it sounds, this begins with dressing because, and let me quote Bishop David Oyedepo, “You are addressed the way you are dressed”.Flowing from this, you are considered the way you consider yourself.In other words, we cannot, by commission or omission, allow consumers of our services to denigrate us by offering working conditions which are totally unacceptable.From my personal experience, organizers hardly distinguish between translators, interpreters and other conference service providers.In extreme cases, they could even believe that you are at their beck and call.It is for the well-dressed and distinguished-looking professional to erase such aberrations so that when you walk up to pick your cheque, no one will begrudge you your well-earned remuneration.Stories abound of translators and interpreters stranded after conferences, or who are laconically requested to leave forwarding addresses for remunerations which may never come. Happily enough, some organizations are a gem to work with, particularly in countries like Benin and Togo.So, is it the usual Nigerian factor?Maybe, but the bottom line is that we must, in this country, ensure that what obtains elsewhere is equally applicable.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The future of translation and interpretation remains rosy in spite of the gangrenous activities of those freebooters who have no stake in the sector.This speaker would warmly welcome the idea of recourse to personal,NITI registered stamps on EVERY translation job just as conference interpreters must be listed in official performance reports on interpretation teams.Such reports would then be stored for reference purposes.
My vision for the future of translation and interpretation in Nigeria is definitely tied to a complete overhaul of our curriculum coupled with appropriate legislation for practicing in regulated, acceptable conditions.Only then can we be sure of following the footsteps of our eminent colleagues who have defended our national flag in Africa and beyond.